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PODs of the Thirty Years War XXIX

By Alex Richards

Portrait of Christian of Brunswick-Lüneburg by Jan Anthonisz van Ravesteyn

While the Northern front of the later Thirty Years War was largely conducted independently from the other fronts of the conflict, as the last few articles have made clear at times both Sweden and the Emperor found themselves involved militarily- and more frequently diplomatically- in the situation in neighbouring Lower Saxony. Much as with the previously discussed situation in Hesse, was more of a long-standing dynastic struggle than anything particularly involved with the religious or political clashes of the wider Empire, yet at times coming to the forefront of the conflict. This was the turbulent world of the Guelph[1] Princes.

The Principalities of Brunswick

As the 17th Century dawned, the Guelph’s sat in a centuries-long relative low compared to both their illustrious past and the future heights that would be attained after the ascension of George I to the British throne a century later. While the connections to the 9th-11th Century monarchs of Upper Burgundy are somewhat uncertain, what is known is that in around 1035 Kunigunde, sister to Welf III, Duke of Carinthia and last scion of what has come to be termed the Elder House of Welf[2], married Albert Azzo II, the Margrave of Milan of the ancient Italian house of Este. Their son- also called Welf- inherited his maternal uncle’s territories in Carinthia, then was appointed Duke of Bavaria in 1070 after his father-in-law, the then Duke, rebelled against Emperor Heinrich IV.

His son, Heinrich IX of Bavaria, married one of the two daughters of the last Billung Duke of Saxony, and then his son Heinrich X attempted to force his investiture with Saxony by withholding the Imperial Regalia for the incoming Emperor Conrad III. Heinrich IX was stripped of his lands and titles as a consequence. Heinrich X’s son- usually referred to as Henry the Young Lion- spent much of his life attempting to rebuild the family fortunes, and while initially successful in regaining Saxony and Bavaria, by the end of his life had been reduced to an area of land around the town of Brunswick in Lower Saxony, which eventually passed to his grandson Otto, usually termed the first Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg in 1235.

Over the next few centuries, Brunswick-Lüneburg underwent the typical pattern of dynastic fragmentation, but escaped a long-term confessional division- as was seen with Hesse, Saxony and the Palatinate- with all the various branches adopting Lutheranism by the late 16th Century. Paired with a period of territorial consolidation the situation in 1618 had, for the moment at least, stabilised with only two reigning branches- the Lüneburg line, often referred to as Brunswick-Celle, and the Dannenberg branch of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, who also ruled the traditionally separate principalities of Calenberg and Göttingen. Lüneburg had, thanks to a judicial ruling by the Reichskammergericht the previous year, just been granted the lands of Brunswick-Grubenhagen which had been disputed between the two branches since the death of the last Grubenhagen Prince in 1596. The town of Lüneburg meanwhile was run as a joint territory, while Brunswick itself had established a de facto state of independence which was heavily disputed by the various Guelph princes. However, despite their mutual desire to enforce dynastic control over the settlement, Brunswick’s independence endured due to Brunswick-Lüneburg blocking Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel’s attempts to take the city by force lest the other branch of the family gain yet more power relative to them.

The Imperial Occupation

Frederick Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg as portrayed by Wilhelm Schwan

The situation with Brunswick was to prove a presage of the early years of the Thirty Years War. In Lüneburg, the reigning Prince Christian the Elder had inherited the title after the death of his elder brother in 1611, but had also been serving as administrator of the Prince-Bishopric of Minden since 1599. Eager to keep the Bishopric safe from conflict, he initially joined the Imperial forces, serving as Colonel of the Imperial forces recruited from the Lower Saxon Circle. Meanwhile Prince Frederick-Ulrich of Wolfenbüttel was in the midst of a de facto regency spearheaded by his mother and resulting from his severe alcoholism. While the duchy itself initially remained neutral, Frederick-Ulrich’s younger brother Christian the Younger, Administrator of the Prince-Bishopric of Halberstadt, first fought in the army of Maurice of Orange, before joining the Palatinate cause and serving as a commander in Frederick V’s army in the dying days of the Palatinate Campaign.

This was to prove to be a disaster both for Christian himself and the dynasty at large. While certainly more able than his elder brother, Christian proved himself to be a decidedly inferior commander, managing at best to contribute to a strategic victory in relieving Bergen-op-Zoom in the Spanish Netherlands despite heavy losses in the Battle of Fleurus, while both the battles of Höchst and Stadtholn against Count Tilly were disastrous defeats. These actions alarmed the other members of the dynasty who were not only uninterested in the Palatinate cause, but feared it could lead to reprisals falling upon them when they were otherwise covered by Emperor Ferdinand II’s guarantee at Mülhausen in 1620 not to use the situation as an excuse to recover any bishoprics currently administered by Lutheran princes. Just prior to the Battle of Stadtholn, his uncle, Christian IV of Denmark, sent troops to ensure that he was kept out of the Bishopric of Bremen, and Elector Johann Georg of Saxony mobilised troops to prevent him from moving east. Only the assistance of Friedrich Ulrich was able to prevent Christian from being completely isolated and allowed him the time to build a new army.

While already ordering Tilly to advance into Lower Saxony, Ferdinand was initially inclined to be merciful- going so far as to guarantee Christian’s position as Administrator of Halberstadt so long as he submitted to Imperial authority- but Christian proved obstinate and refused these terms, going on to a humiliating defeat at Stadtholn who’s only results were to lead him to resign his position in Halberstadt and to feed the Emperor’s suspicion of the motives of the Lutheran princes of Lower Saxony.

The Danish Campaign has been covered elsewhere, but saw Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel occupied first by the Danish forces, and then by Count Tilly who turned the fortress of Wolfenbüttel into a major Imperial base for the region. While Wallenstein’s suggestion to grant Calenberg to Tilly and Wolfenbüttel to Pappenheim was born from a desire to justify his own personal aggrandisement rather than any particular goal on the part of the Emperor, Count Tilly did start the process of reclaiming the various Bishoprics of Lower Saxony- placing a Catholic Bishop in Halberstadt and a co-adjucator in Minden who gradually sidelined Christian the Elder. The Edict of Restitution in 1629 was to prove the final straw for the latter who finally defected to the protestant cause from the loss of Minden, and which was also of particular concern to Frederick-Ulrich as it opened up the prospect of a reverse of the 1523 Treaty of Quedlinburg when the Prince-Bishopric of Hildesheim had been forced to cede most of her territory to Brunswick-Lüneburg.

For the rest of the war the efforts of the Guelphs would come to be dominated by their attempts to secure the restitution of as much of their pre-war territory as possible, without bringing the full fury of the conflict to their lands.

[1] A brief note here, I’ll be using the more traditional British academic terms in this article as we’ve now reached an area of Germany where there is often a greater familiarity in English language works. Hence the House of Guelph, as opposed to the House of Welf (or indeed the more archaic Guelf), Brunswick instead of Braunschweig and so forth.

[2] No, nobody uses the term ‘Elder House of Guelph’ as far as I can tell.


Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP


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